Today is Jack Strouss’s 90th birthday. Jack’s granddaddy fought in the Civil War, and not many people can say that. Jack’s great uncle Clement was General Clement A. Evans, whose portrait hangs in the Georgia State Capitol. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Jack W. Strouss is a quintessential Southern gentleman who can “charm the spots off a leopard”, according to some of his friends. Born June 24, 1923, Jack attended public schools in Atlanta and graduated from Technological High School in 1942.
Jack’s father lost his job during the Great Depression, and like many families at the time, everyone pulled together and found entrepreneurial ways of keeping the family together, including sharing what little they had with those who had even less. Jack’s experience of those difficult days gives him an excellent perspective on the challenges faced by Americans in the current economic crisis.
After graduating from high school, Jack felt compelled to serve his country following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corp in October, 1942. Jack served in the 15th US Army in the European Theater during the war, commanded first by Lt. General Leonard T. Gerow, a close friend of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and later by General George S. Patton following the German surrender and the end of European hostilities.
Jack has a whole cache of great stories about the often controversial General Patton, including a tale of soldiers coming to attention and saluting the General’s staff car as it passed by, only to discover that the vehicle contained no more than Patton’s dog, Willy. Jack continued to serve in the 15th Army following the tragic death of Patton in an automobile accident, and served in the US Army of Occupation before returning to civilian life in 1946.
One of Jack’s most memorable experiences of his service in World War II was the torpedoing and subsequent sinking of his troop transport by a Nazi submarine as it crossed the English Channel in route to Normandy. “We had to abandon ship just before dark”, recalls Jack, “and this was accomplished by us jumping from the deck of our sinking transport onto the deck of a small Free French frigate that had pulled alongside. After our ship was abandoned another torpedo stuck the ship and she went to the bottom. The tiny frigate was so small that we had to stand shoulder to shoulder on the deck in the freezing cold December air, to avoid going into the water, which was equally cold. To this day I am especially grateful to that heroic French crew who saved my life, and I always like to say ‘thank you’ to anyone I meet from that country”.
After completing his military service Jack returned home where he attended Oglethorpe University and Georgia State University, both in Atlanta. In the 1950’s Jack entered into U.S. Civil Service where he worked first for the Treasury Department and later for the U.S. Civil Service Commission itself, where he worked in testing and grading of individuals entering the Service. At that time the infamous McCarthy Hearings were underway in the US Senate along with the intense searches it spawned for presumed Communist infiltrators in all branches of any government agency and beyond.
Jack was investigated in the witch hunts due to his sexual orientation. Eventually he was visited in his office by federal agents who led him down the hall to another office for questioning. To this day Jack does not know if they were from the investigating agency of the Civil Service or the F.B.I. Regardless, the agents led Jack back to his own office where he was ordered to collect his personal belongings and ordered to leave. His career with the US government was over. “All things work out for the good at times if one is patient and in the right”, says Jack of his firing from his job just because he was gay. “Many thousands were caught up in that terrible witch hunt that eventually led to the censoring of the Senator and the disgrace of some of his staff. I am still awaiting an apology from my government for this unfortunate treatment of a law-abiding veteran of WWII whose civil rights were violated in a most unfortunate manner. I am patient still.”
Following his termination from the federal government, Jack found a job through a close friend with a national Motion Picture Film distribution firm where he worked for 27 years, eventually ending that career as manager of the company’s Southeastern Branch in Atlanta. When the company ceased operations in branch offices Jack completed his final eight years up to retirement working at the Atlanta Journal/Constitution Newspaper, which remains the largest circulated daily newspaper in north Georgia. “Again thru the auspices of a good friend in management at the newspaper who recommended me for a position”, says Jack. “This was a delightful organization in which to work and be a contributing part. It was icing on the cake, so to speak, of my working career years.”
Following retirement Jack began volunteer work during the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s and 90’s, assisting patients through his Church Aids Ministry and AID Atlanta, a local agency coordinating support services throughout the metro Atlanta area. For some 22 years he delivered weekly meals through Atlanta’s Meals On Wheels program for a local organization catering to the elderly in retirement homes.
Jack’s hobby and lifetime endeavor has been in the field of music. “I am basically a composer though I have been a singer and cantor in The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer most of my adult life until the last 3 years when age took over and the voice left”, says Jack of his first love. “I am still composing in traditional classical forms, mostly art songs though I have some piano works and vocal works including my largest work, a setting of the Mass. This I worked on for over 20 years, off and on and still am polishing a bit here and there. Trying to be a perfectionist and getting things just right is often more difficult than the initial laying out of a work, at least it is for me.”
Jack continues to be active in the LGBT community in Atlanta. Jack has been one of the most faithful members of AVER’s Georgia Chapter. In past years on Memorial Day, Jack meticulously helped fold the flag as it was retired from its year of service, but we give him a break now and allow him to “coordinate” from a more comfortable location. No AVER participation in Atlanta’s annual Pride Parade could take place without Jack waving to the crowd from his vehicle where he rides along with veterans from other wars. It is amazing to see the crowd react to Jack when he rides by in the parade. People are so moved and inspired by him. We see people stand up from their chairs when he passes by, and veterans in the crowd salute him. It’s really very moving.
In 2008 Servicemembers Legal Defense Network honored Jack Strouss with its first ever Atlanta Service Award. Jack continues to be on the front line of the struggle for LGBT rights, especially in the struggle for military freedom. In June, 2010, Jack placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery along with two other distinguished gay World War II veterans, AVER Life Members Dr. Frank Kameny and Rev. Dr. John McNeill.
In September, 2011, AVER held a Retreat ceremony to mark the last day of military service under DADT. Jack spoke at that event, and the video of his speech was viewed on Youtube by over 14,000 people. Jack is one of my dearest friends. In recent years when I have experienced personal challenges and painful times, Jack has been someone I could always turn to. When I think of the man I really want to be, Jack is the one who comes to mind. He is such a wonderful gift in my life, and I wanted to share that gift with all of you, on the auspicious occasion of his 90th birthday. Here’s hoping the Supreme Court gives Jack a great big birthday present!
Danny Ingram, National President American Veterans for Equal Rights